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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 12/9/21

Troubling Western Identity

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Message Dr. Lenore Daniels

In Everlasting Memory

Of the anguish of our ancestors

May those who died rest in peace

May those who return find their roots

May humanity never again perpetrate

Such injustice against humanity

We the living vow to uphold this

Plaque at Elmina, Ghana

And yet, we have to ask ourselves, Has the lesson been learned? How are we to honor the ancestors?

When I was a child, reading transported me to other geographical locations, where I could reside among another people. Whenever I read a Dickens novel, I wanted to share my food with the hungry children. As a child, I recognized scrooges from kindhearted people.

My high school English teacher for my junior and senior years was a middle-aged Black woman who showed her love for reading by introducing us to the English Renaissance writers and poets, Jonson, Donne, Milton, Marvell. Shakespeare's tyrants of the 16 th Century resonated with those of us envisioning a Nixon presidency in the 20 th Century. We learned to think critically about these eras and the offerings of their literary response to the world around them. How does Keats's inquiry on the beauty of figures on a Grecian urn compared to the flow of a 20 th Century poet's blood among ancient rivers? "Ancient, dusty rivers ?

Most young Blacks in the late 1960s and early 1970s continued to read Black literature because, despite the demand for Black studies, I, for one, never had a Black studies course in college. Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Ann Petry, Nikki Giovanni, and Le Roy Jones (Baraka) were read at home while, in the official classroom, the reading was general written by white men. In college classrooms, I watched as how white classmates and white professors responded to the thinkers, writers, and poets on the syllabus as if each were precious. Sacred. It was as if a wall surrounded me, keeping me within it, but I was able to hear and watch without the ability to interject a question or two.

The white students read without questioning the possibility that something might be missing in their understanding of the historical background of these texts. My very presence in the classroom attested something being amiss. U nbothered by Kipling's reference to the white man's burden or James Fenimore Cooper's description of Indigenous Americans as savages wouldn't seem natural! The "darkness" Conrad's Heart of Darkness offered referenced Africans and the continent of Africa itself as a location just south of reason. And deliberate misdirection on the part of white professors protected my classmates' sense of privilege, encouraging, in turn, a universal or natural gravitation to familiar characters. Just overlook the "creatures" in the text just as I was overlooked in the classroom.

By the second week of class, my presence in the classroom no longer made any one of them glance my way. I didn't exist. I wasn't even an intruder. I wasn't. As I wasn't in the works of the syllabuses. The white students could be made to believe that Black life was outside of the works of the British, American, Western canon. And whenever a white male professor spoke of Western culture, Western values, Western history, it was understood that he was referring to white culture, white values, white history. Universal. Natural. Black people were an anomaly.

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Activist, writer, American Modern Literature, Cultural Theory, PhD.

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